Political art: Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Ai Weiwei’s work is full of contrasts and contradictions. They are at once robust and fragile, awkward and meticulously crafted, brutal and beautiful. The making reflects the message. Ai sculpts handcuffs from the precious jade, scribbles the Coca Cola logo on an ancient vase, and smashes another in a photographic sequence as a note on history, value, life.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts is the Chinese artist’s first retrospective in the UK – not necessarily an easy task given that his art is often in danger of being dwarfed by his other work. Ai is an artist, a poet, an architect and urbanist, a writer and blogger, a curator and an activist. He keeps extending the notion of art.

His art, films and writing collectively express his vision. Hans Ulrich Obrist calls him the ‘renaissance artist’. The curator and co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery says, ‘his holistic approach can be compared to that of Joseph Beuys as an interdisciplinary “social sculpture”.’*

Ai was born in Beijing in 1957. His father Ai Qing, regarded as one of the greatest modern Chinese poets, was accused of being anti communist, forbidden to write and exiled to the remote Xinjiang province, where the young Ai grew up during the Cultural Revolution.

He later moved to Beijing and learnt to draw from banned artists who were family friends, and drawing still remains at the core of his work. Ai studied at the Beijing Film Academy and later in New York at the Parsons School of Design before returning to China in 1993 to work as an artist.

From the start his work has been embedded in Chinese culture whilst reflecting the exposure he had had to Western art during his 12-year sojourn in the US. He sites the grandfather of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp as ‘the most, if not the only, influential figure’ in his art practice.

Ai’s work has been censored, he’s been arrested, spent time in solitary confinement (one display at the RA sees his every mundane daily movement meticulously, and movingly, recreated scene by scene), and has had his passport confiscated. The irony is he almost didn’t receive a British visa to attend this exhibition.

Ai works with traditional materials and methods, and with historic objects from Neolithic vases to Qing dynasty architectural components and furniture. New objects are formed from old to challenge conventions of value and authenticity in modern-day China. ‘I feel it’s very interesting to put a tremendous effort or art or craftsmanship into something useless, or even nameless,’ he tells Obrist *. And much like Duchamp, Ai’s work comes with a wonderful sense of humour.

The artist has a great gift for material and proportion. His installations are huge; some have such volume they occupy whole rooms at the RA. Ai offers multiple readings. You know you are faced with a work of art carrying the weight of a profound message even if you are unaware of what this may be.

Here the artist’s account of history, political and personal, is told with such fluidity and grace. What’s more, this intelligently curated exhibition allows each piece space to breath, whilst directing us from room to room so the whole show reveals itself as almost one singular installation.

The RA was packed on the random weekday afternoon we visited, young and old navigating the show with evident curiosity. They absorbed the written descriptions, mostly had hired the vocal guides and, unlike most exhibitions, not a whisper could be heard.

Political art often falls under slogan art becoming almost kitsch with its execution and delivery. Not here. You cannot help but be profoundly moved by Ai’s commentary on complex histories, value of material, the fragility of life, of human and historical loss.

He reminds us that today, possibly more than ever, we need cultural and political art. Ai says we are a part of the reality ‘and if we don’t realise that, we are totally irresponsible. We are a productive reality. We are the reality, but that part of reality means that we need to produce another reality.’ *

This is an exhibition not to be missed.

Nargess Banks

* The quotes are from Ai Weiwei Speaks, a series of interviews conducted over several years with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and highly recommend reading for greater insight into Ai’s work.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm © Ai Weiwei

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995:
Although Ai plays down the significance of this work referring to it as a ‘silly act’ Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn overtly refers to the wilful destruction of China’s historic buildings and antique objects that took place during his formative years in the decade following Chairman Mao’s announcement of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Many may have been forgiven for thinking that such government-led acts of cultural vandalism might never been seen again. Yet Ai’s work also alludes to China’s pursuit of economic development which has been marked by a lack of protection provided by the authorities for the historic fabric of many of China’s towns and cities.

Table and Pillar, 2002. Wooden pillar and table from the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, 460 x 90 x 90 cm. London, Tate © Ai Weiwei

Table and Pillar, 2002:
Table and Pillar is the single most important work in the Furniture series, one of the first bodies of work that Ai made on his return to China in 1993. Conscious of the massive changes taking place in Beijing as China sought to modernise, Ai purchased material from Qing dynasty (1644-1911) temples and other buildings that were being dismantled to make way for new developments. Along with period furniture Ai created new pieces, making his interventions invisible through the use of traditional carpentry. In this way he subverted their intended function, making aesthetically and technically appealing but ultimately ‘useless objects’ in the process.

Straight, 2008-12. Steel reinforcing bars, 600 x 1200 cm Lisson Gallery, London © Ai Weiwei

Straight, 2008–12: Following the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, Ai clandestinely collected some two hundred tonnes of bent and twisted rebar (the steel rods used in the construction of reinforced concrete buildings) destined for recycling which he transported to his studio in Beijing. Here it was straightened by hand, returned to the form it would have had before it was encased in concrete and then mis-shapened by the earthquake. Ai created this sober monument to the victims of the earthquake, the form subconsciously referencing those of seismic waves, whilst also commenting on the sub-standard building methods applied in the delivery of regional government construction projects.

i.O.U. Wallpaper, 2011-13 © Ai Weiwei

I.O.U Wallpaper, 2011–2013:
In 2011 Ai was illegally detained for 81 days. On his release he was accused of tax evasion and presented with a fine of over £1 million to be paid within fifteen days. Thousands of individuals offered their support often in the form of small donations, some made literally by throwing packets of money over the wall of his compound in Caochangdi. In this way people showed their support for his actions and identified with him as a ‘spokesman’ for the ordinary person, one who stood for the rights of the individual. Ai wrote a promissory note for each donation he received, vowing to repay every single contribution that helped him settle his tax bill.

Coloured Vases, 2006. Neolithic vases 5000-3000 BC with industrial paint, dimensions variable © Ai Weiwei

Coloured Vases, 2015:
Since his return to China in 1993, Ai has systematically engaged with ceramics. He purchases historic vessels, ranging from Neolithic pottery to Qing Dynasty porcelain, in markets and from antique dealers. These are grouped and classified by period and style before his interventions. Ai is very conscious that markets are full of fakes being sold as originals, and that only experts can distinguish between them. The creation of forgeries interests him since the same skill and traditions used to create the originals are used to create modern versions. The question of authenticity is, therefore, central to this body of work. By extension, he is also interested in value. Is a Neolithic vase dipped in paint more valuable as a contemporary artwork than it was before? In China, which is so marked by rapid change and development, Ai exposes the tension between old and new.

Marble, 39.2 x 39.8 x 19 cm; Video Recorder, 2010 © Ai Weiwei

Surveillance Camera, 2010:
As an outspoken critic of the government, Ai’s studio residence in Caochangdi has been under surveillance by the authorities for many years. To this end there are at least twenty cameras trained on his compound, conspicuously attached to buildings and telegraph poles especially since Ai has attached a red lantern below each one. By making a marble version Ai references Ming dynasty (1368–1644) tomb offerings where everyday objects were made in precious materials and interred alongside members of the Imperial family in an ostentatious display of power and wealth. Here the hand carved marble camera serves no function other than decorative as it cannot witness or record anything.

Remains, 2015. Porcelain, dimensions variable; Surveillance Camera, 2010. © Ai Weiwei

Remains, 2015:
In 1958, when Ai was still a child, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, was denounced as a criminal during a state-sponsored crackdown, known as the Anti-Rightist Movement, aimed at silencing intellectuals against collectivisation. Ai Qing and his family were sent to a military re-education camp in the northwest province of Xinjiang where they lived in appalling conditions until 1976 when he was rehabilitated. A recent clandestine archaeological excavation uncovered a group of bones, the remains of an unknown intellectual who perished under similar circumstances in a labour camp. These bones were brought to Ai who replicated them in meticulous detail in porcelain. The work commemorates the suffering of his father and thousands of others during the brutal regime of Chairman Mao.

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014. Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style, 51 x 41 x 0.8 cm © Ai Weiwei

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014:
The slogan ‘Free Speech’ decorates each of the individual porcelain ornaments that collectively form a map of China. Ai has produced numerous Map works in disparate materials, such as wood, milk powder cans and cotton, over the past twenty years. The components of Free Speech Puzzle are based on traditional pendants made of various materials such as wood, porcelain or jade, depending on the wealth of the individual, that bore a family’s name and served as a marker of status and as a good- luck charm for the wearer. Through the multiple pieces Ai creates a rallying cry that reflects the distinct geographic and ethnic regions that together form modern China and which, despite their differences, ought to have the right to free speech as their principal common denominator.

‘Ai Weiwei’, supported by Lisson Gallery, is at the Royal Academy, London from 19 September to 13 December 2015. 

Read our previous articles on Ai Weiwei here.

Also have a look at Ai’s jewellery here.

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Memory Marathon at the Serpentine

‘We move so fast that memory is something we can only try to grasp,’ says Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The annual Serpentine Gallery Pavilion – this year created by Ai in collaboration with architects Herzog & de Meuron – inspires Memory Marathon. The three-day event sees leading artists, writers, filmmakers, scientists, architects, musicians and theorists gather together in a continuous, performative programme of explorations and experiments about and within memory.

This is a pretty diverse gathering of creatives. Sadly historians Eric Hobsbawm, due to attend the event, passed away last week. Alongside Jay Winter and Donald Sassoon, he was scheduled to explore the theme of ‘War Memory’. The event is therefore dedicated to this fascinating historian.

Amongst the confirmed participants are REM vocalist Michael Stipe, and filmmakers Amos Gitai and David Lynch who will present a new film. Celebrated neuroscientist Israel Rosenfield will introduce ‘The Problem of Memory’ with writer John Hull. There will be a robotics expert Luc Steels and World Memory Champion Ed Cooke, artists Olivier Castel and Ed Atkins, publisher Jefferson Hack, and scent expert Sissel Tolaas.

The event begins with a five-hour performance by acclaimed Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui, who together with 14 world musicians will take audiences on a mesmerising journey through Tarab and classical Arab music recorded from the early 20th century onwards.

‘As a curator, I am constantly engaged in building memory or, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, leading a ‘protest against forgetting’,’ says Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery.

‘Although we are hugely sad that Ai Weiwei still cannot travel to be with us and see the Pavilion that provides the inspiration for this year’s Marathon, his brilliant co-designers, Herzog and de Meuron, will be among a stunning array of world-leading experts exploring the subject of memory through the prism of art, history, science and technology, considering – among many other things – the suspicion that there is a kind of systematic forgetting at the core of the information age.’

Memory Marathon marks the closing week of the Serpentine Pavilion 2012.

Serpentine Gallery Memory Marathon runs from 12 – 14 October for tickets visit here.

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Serpentine Pavilion by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei

There is something quite enchanting, and perhaps a little sad, about a structure designed by some of the leading creative minds of our time that is commissioned to be temporary, there only for a brief few months. This has been the premise behind the Serpentine Gallery Pavilions, which sees buildings erected in the heart of London, in Kensington Gardens, each year from June through to October by leading names in the world of architecture: Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Oscar Niemeyer, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel to name a few.

The 12th pavilion is the work of Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese contemporary artist/activist Ai Weiwei. This is a unique proposition that takes the visitor on an intriguing journey, beneath the Serpentine’s lawn to explore the hidden history of past pavilions. The eleven columns characterising each past pavilion, and a twelfth one representing the current structure, support a floating platform roof 1.4m above ground.

‘So many pavilions in so many different shapes and out of so many different materials have been conceived and built that we tried instinctively to sidestep the unavoidable problem of creating an object, a concrete shape,’ explain Herzog & de Meuron and Ai.

The interior is clad in cork, a sustainable material chosen for its unique qualities that also echoes the excavated earth, and silence of peace as well as leave quite a strong musty smell. The team dug five feet down into the soil of the park until they reached the groundwater where they created a waterhole to collect the city’s rain that falls in the area of the pavilion. As they went deeper and deeper, they discovered a diversity of constructed realities such as telephone cables and former foundations.

‘Like a team of archaeologists, we identify these physical fragments as remains of the eleven pavilions,’ they said before the building was unveiled. ‘Their shape varies: circular, long and narrow, dots and also large, constructed hollows that have been filled in.’

The design aims to inspire visitors to look beneath the surface of the park as well as back in time across the ghosts of the earlier structures. It is more reconstruction, of course, than excavation, but nevertheless it works in creating a fun theatrical space to be enjoyed by the general public throughout the summer months.

This is the second time Herzog & de Meuron and Ai have collaborated having designed the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2012 will be open to the public on 1 June to 14 October 2012.

Read our reports on previous Serpentine Pavilions by Peter Zumthor and Jean Nouvel. Also read more on Ai Weiwei.

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Ai Weiwei: exploring tension in ideology

Ai Weiwei has become internationally recognised for much more than his art. The Chinese artist’s persecution by Beijing has raised awareness – and concern – amongst the international art world over the darker side of the regime. It has in turn made Ai one of the most significant cultural figures of his generation, in China and internationally.

Following on from his Unilever series commission Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern, this latest exhibition at London’s Lisson Gallery is a show of his sculptural and video art – a chance to view a number of key works that demonstrate the range and sensibility of the artist.

Ai explores the tension in ideology, what he has described as ‘being between a more interesting state of mind and a more dreadful state of mind. The artist should be for the interesting against the dreadful,’ he says.

Using a variety of formal languages with both traditional and innovative methods of production, Ai links the past with the present and explores the geopolitical, economic and cultural realities affecting the world with humour and compassion.

Amongst the work on display at Lisson are Coloured Vases. Created in 2009 and 2010, the two installations represent groupings of 7 and 31 Hans Dynasty (from 200DV-220AD) pots covered in industrial paint. Ai’s continued desecration of these vases could represent his anger at the organised destruction of cultural and historical values that took place during the Cultural Revolution when everything old was replaced by new.

Lisson’s Greg Hilty notes: ‘These beautifully crafted, conceptually acute, poetically resonant, these works provide a concise overview of his concerns as an artist of Ai Weiwei.’

His work can be seen as a succession of gestures critiquing both commodity fetishism and the society in which he lives.

Among numerous international projects planned for next year are exhibitions of Ai’s photographic works at the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, and his architectural projects at Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria.

The exhibition at Lisson Gallery is on from 13 May to 16 July 2011.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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PAD London: Objects of desire

London turned into a giant art fair in October as representatives from galleries from around the world descended on the capital city to take part in the now highly established Frieze Art Fair and Pavilion of Art & Design London – both offering art for sale and attracting international buyers and collectors as well as art and design enthusiasts.

Joris Laarman Branch Bookshelf in bronze, 2010

The two affairs that run simultaneously from 13 – 17 October, though, couldn’t be more contrasting. Frieze is a racy affair that has at its core a giant pavilion constructed in the middle of Regents Park offering a vast selection of contemporary works of art by an international set of galleries. It is large, loud – almost chaotic – and feels current, attracting not just those who can afford to buy but also people from all walks of life.

Fernando & Humberto Campana, Sushi IV Chair, 2003 ©Perimeter Editions, Paris

PAD London is an altogether more serene experience. In its third year, the art and design fair has grown to include 50 of the world’s most elite galleries. Plus its location – a tent constructed amongst the sculptural trees of Berkley Square in the heart of exclusive Mayfair – limits its size and to a degree its customers.

Taking 1860 as its starting point, paintings by Pablo Picasso,  Egon Schiele, some brilliant work by German expressionist George Groz, were on exhibit alongside those by Bridget Riley, Richard Prince and more avant-garde artists including the controversial Austrian painter Gottfried Helnwein with his rather haunting work that is a visual critic of war, and outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who’s 2004 China Bench (pictured bellow). Both were exhibited on New York gallery Friedman Benda‘s visually rich stand.

Ai Weiwei, China Bench, 2004 ©Freidman Benda, New York

This gathering sat alongside mid 20th century European classic of Gio Ponti and co to Dutch designer Joris Laarman and his exquisite Branch Bookshelf that managed to be both organic and highly technical (pictured above and also on exhibit by Friedman Benda), and New York designer Karim Rashid’s bright Blobulous Chair (pictured bellow). Jewelery design ranged from vintage Cartier to sculptural pieces by artist Anish Kapoor. There was even a selection of unusual tribal art on show.

Karim Rashid, Blobulous Chair Chromo, 2008-2010 ©Edizioni Galleria Colombari, Milan

There was also an exhibit by graduate designers from London’s prestigious Royal College of Art. Curator Janice Blackburn and the college’s director of architecture Nigel Coats selected 20 pieces from the 2010 graduate show with 15 percent of the profits generated from the sale going towards the RCA Student Fine Art Award Fund.

Royal College of Art's 2010 graduate show at Pavilion of Art & Design London

PAD London is a chic and exclusive affair – the 50 galleries taking part are from the elite of the art and design world. It was conceived by two Frenchmen Patrick Perrin and Stéphane Custot who spotted a gap in the market and filled it with the kind of work – and the mix – that no one else caters for.

This may be a purely commercial affair, but much like Frieze it is a chance to see a varied selection of creative work gathered, rather conveniently, under one roof.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | www.d-talks.com | Bookshop www.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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